The findings of a new study raise concerns about the health risks associated with exposure to low levels of lead in drinking water, which would be considered “safe” under normal circumstances, but may still cause serious side effects for those with kidney problems,
Harvard researchers warn that individuals with advanced chronic kidney disease may be particularly susceptible to even very low levels of lead in drinking water, which could increase their risk of anemia, according to a report published in the July 2021 issue of the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology (JASN).
Researchers analyzed health data from more than 600,000 patients with end stage kidney disease beginning dialysis in the United States between 2005 and 2017. Data was taken from the United States Renal Data System. The researchers also used data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Safe Drinking Water Information System, documenting lead concentrations in community water systems during the five years before dialysis began.
The study analyzed the potential effects of lead on hemoglobin and patients with kidney disease.
Patients in cities with detectable lead levels in community water had significantly lower hemoglobin concentrations before starting dialysis and during the start of treatment. They received higher doses of medications to treat anemia, when red blood cell counts are lower than normal.
The data indicates these patients were affected by levels of lead which were significantly lower than safety levels set by the EPA which would mandate regulatory actions.
The findings also indicated the lead levels were at levels significantly below safe levels the EPA mandates as requiring regulatory actions, or levels considered safe for drinking.
Each 0.01 mg/L increase of lead in drinking water was linked with significantly lowered hemoglobin concentrations and an increase erythropoietin-stimulation agents (ESA).
This study may have important implications for 30 to 40 million Americans with kidney disease who believe they are safe from lead drinking water risks. However, researchers warn that for those with kidney disease, there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. Any level poses a risk.
“This first nationwide analysis linking EPA water supply records to patient data shows that even low levels of lead that are commonly encountered in community water systems throughout the United States are associated with lower hemoglobin levels and higher ESA use among patients with advanced kidney disease,” the researchers wrote.
Lead exposure during childhood, which tends to be the leading concern over lead exposure in the U.S., can affect a child’s ability to learn and develop. While routine testing can detect elevated blood lead levels in children, health experts emphasize there is no safe blood level of lead exposure, and more than half a million children have blood levels considered unsafe.
In the United States, the most common exposures to lead are from lead-based paint that was used in pre-1978 housing, lead contaminated soil or lead-containing pollutants from industrial sources, and water from old lead pipes and fixtures. Lead-tainted water was the major health concern in Flint, Michigan, in 2016, leading to hundreds of illnesses and other side effects.
Exposure to even low levels of lead may play a larger role in heart disease and deaths in the United States.
Lead exposure can lead to neurological, cardiovascular, and endocrine side effects in the body.
The EPA indicated consumers can reduce lead exposure from drinking water by using only cold water for drinking and cooking, running water for a period before drinking it to help flush away lead, and cleaning faucet aerators regularly.